Monday, December 31, 2012

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

To tempt, and to be tempted, are things very nearly allied, and, in spite of the finest maxims of morality impressed upon the mind, whenever feeling has anything to do in the matter, no sooner is it excited than we have already gone vastly farther than we are aware of, and I have yet to learn how it is possible to prevent its being excited. ~Catherine II
Empress Catherine II of Russia is the subject of Robert K. Massie's recent stellar biography. Taking control of her own destiny, Catherine the Great oversaw the building of palaces, universities, cities and towns as the sole ruler of the largest country in Europe. The Empress began the first state-sponsored university for women in Europe. She wrote a books of laws and called the first ever Russian legislative assembly. Traveling all over her empire as she expanded the boundaries through wars of conquest, Catherine did everything on a vast scale; she should be a heroine to feminists. Catherine had at least twelve love affairs. One would think she would have a broader appeal among contemporary young women than poor, doomed Marie-Antoinette, but that has not been my impression. However, I think that often, in movies, films and novels, elements from Catherine's life are lifted and patched onto Marie-Antoinette, including the husband with a phimosis, and a dashing foreign lover. (In Catherine's story his name was Poniatowski and he was from Poland.) Furthermore, Catherine actually wrote her own memoirs; she was introspective in a way that Marie-Antoinette was not, and yet so many novels are based upon fictional memoirs or diaries of Marie-Antoinette.

The above quote from her own writings is Catherine II's explanation of why she so easily capitulated to romance. It is hard to understand how a woman who was otherwise disciplined and sensible, who had displayed a will of iron on the international stage, could be so weak when it came to handsome men. She was like a female King Solomon, except that her affairs were consecutive and spread out over a long period of time. She was in love with love, claiming that she could not live a day without love; it is safe to assume that she was addicted to sexual relationships. How Catherine's inclinations came to be formed is analyzed in Massie's solid biography; he carefully pulls the information together in such a way that I felt as if I was finally meeting the real Catherine.

Massie reveals, more than any other biography that I have read, the emotional deprivation experienced by Catherine from her early childhood on, due to the fact that her ambitious and narcissistic mother had wanted her to be a boy. She was the recipient of constant criticism and stringent training which would have broken the spirit of a frailer child. Her family were minor German princelings, but her mother had connections by which she was determined to advance herself and drag Catherine along with her. As a young teenager, Catherine, whose birth name was Sophie, was sent to Russia to marry her cousin Peter, the unwilling heir to the Russian throne. Peter had severe psychological problems which increased with age. The ordeals Catherine went through in Russia at the hands of crazy Peter and his eccentric aunt the Empress Elizabeth amounted to mental torture and at times caused her great physical suffering as well. When Catherine's son Paul was born, the baby was whisked away while Catherine was forgotten, lying alone for hours after childbirth without any care. She thought she would die of thirst. That is just one example of the neglect and thoughtlessness visited upon Catherine as a young person which later contributed to her insatiable hunger for affection, passion and pleasure.

One quality for which Catherine is always praised is her love of the Enlightenment and the writings of the French philosophes. She corresponded with Voltaire as if he were her father, sharing matters of state with him as well as her personal life. She gave financial support to Diderot, bringing him to Russia for a long visit. Catherine tried to harmonize the new liberal philosophies with her role of autocrat; she aimed at mercy, tolerance and just laws and strove to bring culture and education. Sadly, her good intentions often broke down when it came to political realities; she found herself tolerating serfdom when she had wanted to abolish it because she could not risk losing the favor of the nobles. Serfdom in Russia was as bad or worse than slavery in the United States. There were millions of serfs and they could be bought and sold, families divided; they could be beaten, tortured, raped. It was terrible; Catherine knew it was terrible, but the writings of Montesquieu about the rights of man were completely lost on most Russians. During the French Revolution, which horrified Catherine, she banned the works of the philosophes in Russia, even those of her friend Voltaire. She blamed them, not unjustly, for stirring up the class warfare and contempt for religion which erupted into violence, murder and social chaos. The Empress was determined to protect Russia from waves of change which, she was convinced, would only lead to disaster.

Massie's book not only vivifies the complex personality of the Great Catherine, but gives clarity to the exceedingly complex European politics of the eighteenth century. At the beginning of each section the author reviews information spoken of in previous chapters so as to keep the reader from getting lost or confused. It is helpful without being repetitive, and the only way to keep all the names straight. Most of all, Massie gives us a flesh and blood portrait of an all too human leader who, in spite of the sadness and turmoil of her private life, was able to accomplish great things, making Russia a major player in world politics as well as in art and literature.



julygirl said...

Thanks for the wonderful review. I am a fan of Massie's books.

The North Coast said...

I have greatly admired Catherine the Great since reading as many biographies of her as I could get my hands on when I was a teen girl. She was a role model to me, this beautiful, powerful, highly intellectual and accomplished woman with a roster of accomplishments that it still makes me feel exhausted and inadequate to read. I hated the way she was treated by historians, who too often depicted her as, variously, a power-hungry harpy, a nymphomaniac, and a probable murderess.

The feminist movement discovered her fairly early on, and it was only because of the movement that so many women have heard about her and her achievements.

She was an absolutely spectacular woman in every respect, no matter what flaws she may have had, and who does not have flaws? As much as I feel for Marie Antoinette and consider her to have been a fine, intelligent, and upright person, I can't place her in the same pantheon as Catherine, though I can place Antoinette's mother, the equally formidable Maria Theresa, in that rarified class.

Unknown said...

This is the most wonderful book I read the year , the way the book is written, you feel like you are next to Catherine living with her. In my personal opinion she really was great, after reading this book I wish I can go to Russia and Saint Petersburg one day, to go to the museums where you can see all the art, to see the castles, for now I am a mental traveler, but in the future if God permit me I will go...!!!